Beat Gardener's Winter Blues - Grow Sprouts For Your Salad and the Birds

John Jett
Horticulture Specialist
WVU Extension Service
4/2000

Many West Virginia home gardeners get itchy green thumbs during the slow passage of the winter months when gardens are clothed in winter costume. While it is fascinating to pore over seed catalogs during winter evenings, it often stimulates the gardener's urge to grow something. Growing sprouts for salad use can be the activity to satisfy that urge. The curious seed sprouter can try many varieties of seed that are not ordinarily thought of as potential food, but often prove to be tantalizing taste tempters.

Your local health food store will carry a line of seeds for sprouting. When purchasing seeds for sprouting, be certain that the seeds are intended for food and not for planting. This precaution is necessary because some seeds meant for planting have been treated with fungicides or insecticides to protect the young seedling until it is established. Other than this simple precaution, most common vegetable seeds can be used for sprouting. Trying different kinds is all part of the fun. Although many sprouts will taste similar, some are distinctly different.

Growing sprouts from seed for food is simplicity itself. Elaborate sprouting set-ups are available, but any simple method of keeping the seeds damp and in a warm (room temperature) place will suffice to grow sprouts from the seeds of your choice. Amateur seed sprouters can use plastic or glass jars with a fine mesh screen or a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the opening; you just need something that air and water can go through, but the seeds cannot. Cover the bottom of the jar with seeds. Run cold water into the covered jar and soak the seeds overnight. Then rinse several times (at least twice) a day until the sprouts have grown to the desired size for eating. It is important that the sprouts be rinsed regularly to insure that the seeds do not turn sour or that mold does not form. Most sprouts will keep seven to ten days in your refrigerator.

Sprouts need at least six times the volume occupied by the seeds. A mere tablespoon or two of tiny alfalfa seeds will grow into tender sprouts that jam themselves into every corner of a standard quart canning jar and will still be growing. Thus they form a compact mass that is difficult to remove from the jar. So be sure that your container is large enough, and start with a minimal amount of seed in the jar until you determine the correct quantity that will grow to the size sprouts you like without being difficult to remove.

Novices will be amazed at the sprouting ability of many common seeds. The mung bean, used by Chinese for food for centuries, is easily the most common seed used for sprouting, and it yields delicious sprouts in just a few days.

Alfalfa seeds do best if sprouts are exposed to moderate light from a window for a day or so, so that tiny green leaves will form. This provides color and adds flavor to the slender sprouts. They turn an ordinary salad into something special and give a special boost to wintertime fare. Peanut butter, banana, honey, and alfalfa sprout sandwiches are great.

Wheat sprouts have a nut-like flavor but become very "chewy," due to the natural gluten in the wheat grain. This feature makes them objectionable to some people.

Radish sprouts have a distinctly sharp radish flavor and are excellent for perking up a green salad.

Lentils enjoy an excellent mild flavor all their own and go well in many recipes as does the old standby, the mung bean sprout.

Some seeds, such as mung beans, release their outer covering or hull when sprouting. Most of us will want to wash away those loose hulls from the growing sprouts, although they are edible and do no harm except possibly make it easier for a mold to start. These hulls can easily be washed away when rinsing the seeds by using a larger mesh screen on top of the sprouting jar. The hulls usually float to the top of the jar and will wash away with the rinse water.

Red clover and fenugreek seeds grow into sprouts that are quite mild tasting and are much like other small seed sprouts.

Corn grows quickly into large succulent sprouts that have a remarkable sweetness. However, they also seem to have a distinct earthy taste, which is objectionable to some people.

Peppergrass seeds create a problem if they are sprouted in a jar with a fine mesh screen over the top. A gelatinous substance forms when the seeds are soaked in water and this gelatinous mass immediately plugs the screen when you attempt to pour out the water to rinse the sprouting seeds. This may seem like a small matter, but it effectively prevents rinsing the seeds, and if the weather is warm, the sprouts will usually turn sour before they are large enough to use. The flavor of peppergrass sprouts is sharp and similar to radish sprouts. They can be sprouted by placing the seeds between several sheets of wet paper toweling, but the final result is hardly worth the effort.

Sprouts are one of the healthiest foods for birds. Parrots especially enjoy this inexpensive, live, growing food. Use the extras from your supply for the birds, or grow them as a special treat for your feathered friends. Sprouts about one inch in length taste best. Sprouts with roots taste bitter.

The following web sites have some of the best seed sprouting information available:

The Sprout People - http://www.sproutpeople.com/growing.html
Johnny's Selected Seeds - http://www.johnnyseeds.com/feature1.htm

Additional Information - November 1998

An advisory committee to the federal Food and Drug Administration has recommended that sprouting seeds should be both irradiated and soaked in chlorine to prevent pathogens from contaminationg sprouts. This recommendation is still considered "guidance" for sprout growers and sprout seed suppliers, but it could become regulation.

This recommendation was made in response to growing concern about the safety of sprouts. The FDA says that since 1995, eight outbreaks involving 1,200 people in the U.S. have been attributed to alfalfa and radish sprouts contaminated by E. coli 0157 or Salmonella bacteria. These two types of bacteria can make healthy people sick for several days, but are life-threatening to children, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system.